The Harrow Was Not Writing Blog

Relating Hallucinatory Imagery with Ahmed Bouanani

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August 1, 2018


So, I just started reading Ahmed Bouanani’s THE HOSPITAL, which was recently released in English, translated from a uniquely-Moroccan dialect of French. This novella is wonderful, mesmerizing, strange, and moving–it begins with the words “When I walked into the hospital, I must have still been alive.” And it leaps immediately and confidently into an absurdist fairy tale. 

THE CHALLENGE
At the age of fifteen, I ate a steak at some dime-a-dozen restaurant on a date with a girl who is now a woman and my wife, and later that night I came down with a dreadful case of food poisoning. First the fever and the sweat and shaking. Then a pointless heaving and gasping, my body trying to eliminate the source of its distress. Staying home from school the next day, as my symptoms continued, I had the house to myself. Unable to sleep, unable to eat, likely also suffering from some kind of anemic episode (caused by a then-undiagnosed chronic illness), I wandered the two story home, the three bedrooms, the kitchen tile cold against my feet, simultaneously sure that I was not a man but a space–a space filled with fast-moving lights that blasted across my distance like shooting stars, but brighter and multi-chromatic. Blues and reds and greens. They smashed into each other and they exploded! Each bursting bright and sending my body reeling at the white light. With every explosion, I felt physical pain. Pain that was all-too real. Brought on by hallucinations? Or just working in tandem with them? 

I write a lot about characters experiencing altered states of consciousness and I read about it a lot too. I love characters who wander in a stupor, who see the world in a twisted light, who experience hallucinations as a matter of course. It’s a constant struggle to orchestrate these moments in a way that is not only compelling but also relatable and discernible. I watch other authors, sometimes very skilled, very experienced authors, struggle similarly. 

And then there’s Bouanani. 

THE STORY
In this story, a man who is vaguely ill leaves his city and enters a hospital, where he interacts with other patients and rapidly deteriorates. Clearly, even explicitly, he is doomed to remain at the hospital for eternity. The story operates, on some level, as a parable, speaking about certain kinds of men and their experiences in an ostensibly post-colonial Morocco. It’s also a lengthy thought-experiment about reality and perception. On its surface, it’s a semi-autobiographical tale about the author’s experience in a Moroccan hospital while being treated for Tuberculosis. 

Although it took about ten pages to really capture me, THE HOSPITAL by Ahmed Bouanani now has me thoroughly enthralled. In part this is because the translator did a wonderful job–the prose is unbelievably beautiful. I can only assume that the original text is as wonderfully sonorous and precise. It includes this sentence: 

“One doesn’t enter a sleeping man’s brain with impunity, not unless you’re a brave head louse or a moonbeam.”

Damn. 

Now, I haven’t yet finished the book, so I can’t speak much to the plot. So far, most of it the book has just explored the depths of the narrator’s delusions and the general routine around the hospital. But Bouanani makes it fascinating. And, anyway, I never expected it to go anywhere plot-wise, because of it’s genre. It’s written in a similar vein as Kafka’s THE TRIAL (but with much more polish, power, and skill), and Camus’ THE STRANGER, an absurdist tale that relates its absurdity and moves on. Thus the brevity of it. 

But man, does it relate its narrator’s hallucinations in such a compelling and powerful and digestable way (that is, when Bouanani aims for compelling and powerful and digestable). Just a note, for clarity: Rover and Guzzler are both other patients. 

Here’s an example of what I mean, from page 69:

I sink into the bed as if it were a viscous trough. My body, trapped between two slopes, doesn’t move. I can’t turn onto either side or the pains will return. In an effort to amuse myself, while I wait for sleep, I often localize each ache and assign an individual color to it. The shooting pain gnawing at my right side is a deep crimson; the one on my left, turquoise blue; the twinges budding in the hollows of my armpits are alternately yellow, pale green, India red, ocher, purple, and indigo; the areas that endure multiple syringe injections each morning are monochromatic landscapes, one single color in infinitely varying tones. Over time, I transform into an immeasurable palate unabsorbed by the night. I glow bright as a star, I rise above the room to a place where I can barely hear my companions’ breathing or snoring, I gently flatten myself against the cold ceiling, turn around so that I can look down upon the beds; the void that grows between the ground and trough. I sink into my memories in search of my youthful corpse. All I need for the past to shed its shroud, to slip on the rags of my six-year-old self, is a whiff of Brazilian coffee, a tune from a music box, or a fine drizzle falling in bright sunlight like at a jackal’s wedding. But there are not scents anywhere, no scents of childhood, no scents of once abundant fruits (mulberries, carob pods, pomegranates, black night-shade berries), of wild flowers, of the sacred plants from our stories (thyme, basil, henna, laurel). Where can I find, even in my dreams, a field of poppies and ripe cornstalks gently shaken by an autumn wind? Rover emerges from a silent thunderstorm. He laughs and slaps his thighs: “You want to know if the ocean is nearby? Nothing could be easier! You follow this path of cacti until you reach palm trees, you turn left and you start down a dusty trail, which leads to the head doctor’s residence. It’s a large windowless villa surrounded by fir trees. If by extraordinary chance his guard dog doesn’t rip off your leg or ass cheek, then that can only mean one thing: there’s no longer a head doctor at this hospital. You keep tearing down the hill, and you’ll arrive at the edge of a fifty-foot cliff. Then you can, if you insist, go for a nice little dip!” Guzzler appears in his turn, shoving Rover, who crumbles like dried clay: “You think that people like us can afford the luxury of memories, a past with clean diapers, notebooks, a pencil case, and a backpack? I was barely out of my mother’s vagina when my childhood went up in smoke. My old man broke so many rods over my skull that it was impossible for me to get through primary school; I became an apprentice tailor, an assistant repairman of every machine ever created, I even secretly married a widow so I could have cigarettes and pocket money like a proper daddy’s boy. Then, after an eternity of unemployment and begging, I started the back-and-forth hospital cycle . . . So what do you call childhood or adolescence? A fancy Sunday suit, that’s What!” Meanwhile, Rover has pulled himself back together, piece by piece. He coughs, vomits blood, laughs and wipes his eyes. Guzzler hands him a Marlboro, and suggests “Try and get yourself some good hash!” He turns to me: “Do you want Rover dead?” 
     “No.”
     “Then don’t ever stop him from lying! Lies have become second nature to him. Did he already tell you the story about the old fool who chopped up everyone in his bathhouse? You haven’t heard anything yet. Go head, Rover, how does it go again, the one about the guy who buys Al-Buraq at the Medina flea market? Not a two-bit engraving, mind you, but the real thing, the Prophet’s steed, go on, tell him.”
     “Come on, Guzzler, another time. Can’t you see that our friend is already asleep? Leave him be.” 

THE SOLUTION
He contained all of that in one paragraph! And it makes total sense! Of course you would want one long extended hallucinatory moment to be constrained within one fictive logical unit. Duh! 

I think it’s easy to understate the importance of paragraphs as a unifying force. Even when I wasn’t sure that the narrator was still hallucinating (in that middle bit where he returns to his “trough”), I was pretty confident he was still hallucinating, because no new paragraph

That has to be it. There were not really any other signs. 

Another something I notice, right off the bat: these two hallucinations don’t really go in the order I would have put them in. It goes from pretty abstract to pretty mundane, and that’s interesting in itself. Like Bouanani intentionally wanted us to wonder if he was still hallucinating or not–while subtly giving us a clue that he was still hallucinating. In the end, though, is he? I’m living for this ambiguity. 

One last final moment before really diving in; one final moment to celebrate the metaphors and adjectives just in this one paragraph. No future simile will ever be as evocative as “I sink into the bed as if it were a viscous trough.” Not for the rest of my whole life. As the narrator transforms himself into a painter’s palette, I’m so struck by the detail and specificity of the injuries and the colors: not brown, ochre; not just green, but pale green; twinges versus shooting pains versus the dull aches evoked by “syringe injections” which exist not in an area or on a stretch of muscle but on a landscape. And, finally, Rover, who “crumbles like clay” when pushed. Beautiful. 

But now, down to brass tacks. 

There’s one really key insight in this nugget of story for me. This hallucinatory scene is a complete scene, and it begins with the character setting a goal, or at least a plan, a way to “amuse” himself until he falls asleep. We can even, to a certain degree, outline it using Swain’s methodology for scenes. 

Goal: to get to sleep
Conflict: he’s in too much pain, so he labels all the pain with colors; but then he dissociates and has to fight to return to his bed; finally, either he hallucinates an argument, or dreams it, or his friends are in the room (and are only peppered with hallucinations). Either way, it’s keeping him from restful sleep. 
Resolution: his friends go, and based on evidence from the next segment, he appears to sleep. 

This being said, my point is that Bouanani makes this such a compelling, engaging hallucination because it’s structured around desire and a plan that’s been justified to us with a certain kind of logic. Labeling his body with colors is just the narrator’s way of distracting himself–it’s one of the things that’s we take for granted. But that distraction goes to far and he is distracted to the point of dissociation but it’s a logical step, in part because we are already aware of the narrator’s propensity to do this, but also because in the labeling of his pain, he’s evoked such a psychedelic image of himself as a colorful, cosmic landscape, that we’re just waiting for it to escalate. He sets up an expectation that it will. 

Expectations built by a character stating and enacting what seems to be a habitual method for dealing with his pain!

And he just takes his time to first build the psychedelic image, then drive it deeper into the narrator’s (and our) psyche, and then expand it out to the whole room. 

How deceptively, wonderfully simple.  

And Bouanani continues this tactic even as his narrator spreads out across the ceiling: he seeks some sensation to plunge him into memory, to further distract himself. But this effort is thwarted by the appearance of Rover, who tries to guide him to the ocean but just captures too much attention. And then Guzzler comes and de-rails the entire conversation. 

This moment, too, is anchored in desire. It’s a desire to get away from it, a desire to get to sleep, to his past, to his dreams. The hallucination is the obstacle that stands in the way of the narrator finding his peace. That’s what makes it so compelling. That’s what grounds it, too. 

But that’s not the only thing grounding it. The other thing is the dialogue itself–it’s a sound on the page, it’s imagery–and the detail being described in the dialogue. Both Rover and Guzzler speak in such concrete and specific terms that it’s easy to overlook the strangeness, the hallucinatory nature of the interaction. 

FINALLY
Let’s stop here. Brevity can be wonderful, especially after a couple of long posts the last few weeks. In summary, Bouanani seems to be using two key techniques: 

1. Ground the hallucinatory moment in desire and conflict, give it a “logic”
2. Ground the hallucinatory moment in specific, detailed nouns 

These two things work in tandem to really evoke these moments and to relate them in an interesting way. 

When you want to write a moment that’s hallucinatory, what examples in literature or film do you turn to as a guide? What do you think about, as you put the scene together?

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